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London Marathon Women’s Race Has It All

Keitany aims high, Masai intrigues, Sisson and Huddle are the wild cards in Sunday's showdown on the streets of London.

Fame, wealth, a new royal reign—those are the prizes that will be glittering outside Buckingham Palace for any woman in Sunday’s London Marathon who can leapfrog Paula Radcliffe’s long-revered world record. Run on this same London course, Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 mark has stood without close challenge since 2003. Three-time London winner Mary Keitany heads a dream field that for the first time in history includes four women with sub-2:19 PRs.

If they overreach, two exciting Americans, Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson, could be on hand to take podium places.

It was at London in 2017 that a new generation announced its bid to succeed Radcliffe, when Keitany rocketed up to second-fastest in history (and fastest in a women-only field) with 2:17:01, while track diva Tirunesh Dibaba followed in a threatening 2:17:56.  But last year at London, Keitany and Dibaba obsessed so much about each other as rival claimants that they failed to notice something as mundane as the English weather. On an unusually warm day for London, they duelled too aggressively too soon, and both blew apart. Little-heralded Vivian Cheruiyot stepped through the debris to win in the world’s fourth fastest time (at that date) on record, 2:18:31.

Now Cheruiyot’s time is only seventh fastest – that’s how swiftly elite depth is progressing in the women’s marathon.  The once-magic sub-2:20 has ceased to be news, good now only for the top thirty all time.

Keitany took revenge on Cheruiyot in New York last November, leading her through the five boroughs by more than three minutes, in 2:22:48.

London Marathon 2019 Elite Women
Gladys Cherono, Vivian Cheruiyot, Mary Keitany and Brigid Kosgei. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 25 April 2018 / Photo: Bob Martin for Virgin Money London Marathon

Now back in London, it’s unlikely to be a simple Keitany/Cheruiyot rematch, even with Dibaba out because of pregnancy. Gladys Cherono, who was fourth last year, rose into world contention by winning Berlin in September in 2:18:11 (now ranking as sixth fastest ever), despite another warm day. And London’s elite recruiters, who never stint on depth, have also brought in Birhane Dibaba (not one of Tirunesh’s sisters), who won Tokyo last year in 2:19:51, and Bridgit Kosgei (25), 2:18:35 in Chicago last October.

The most intriguing addition is Linet Masai. If the name seems familiar, she was world track champion at 10,000m in 2009, runner-up three times in the world cross-country championship, and Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist in 2016. New York fans saw her twice win the New York Mini 10K (2010, 2011), with her fastest a near-world-record 30:18. Masai’s marathon debut was an enigmatic 2:23:45 at Amsterdam last October.

And those exciting Americans.

Huddle’s 2:26:44 PR may not cause the Kenyans to lose sleep, and Sisson is making her marathon debut. But racing is not only about having the fastest time (ask Meb). Huddle and Sisson, who are friends and long-time training partners, are both at the cusp of improving careers. Huddle has placed third in New York in 2016 and fourth in 2018, so knows how to be competitive over the full distance. Both have fast recent half-marathons, Huddle 1:07:25, Sisson 1:07:30—only Kara Goucher has run faster among Americans (1:06:57 on a slightly aided, non-record-eligible course).

Crucially, both are smart and proven racers, with blazing track speed. Who can forget Huddle outsprinting Joyce Chepkirui at the 2015 New York City half-marathon? And it’s only four weeks since Sisson powered away from Huddle on the Stanford track to become the third fastest American ever over 10,000m, 30:49. On the eve of her first marathon, no novice could ask for better confirmation that she is thriving on the high mileage and the Arizona altitude.

Is Keitany ready to be queen? It’s still a big step up to Radcliffe’s 2:15, and Keitany can be tactically fallible. But like Eliud Kipchoge in the men’s field, she combines long experience with a seemingly inexhaustible desire to win, and capacity (somehow) to keep improving in her mid-thirties. That has become the new norm. Back in the day, we used to believe that no one had more than three great marathons in them. Kipchoge and Keitany have blown that theory away.

Keitany’s debut marathon was in 2010, third place at New York, and since then she has won New York four times and London three, with four other podium places, progressing from 2:29:01 to 2:17:01, taking time out to have two children along the way. Without question she has been the leader in the post-Radcliffe era. At 37, she will not be out of place in a field that is sparkling with talent but (should we say tactfully?) mature: Cheruiyot and Cherono are 35, Huddle 34, Masai 29, Dibaba 26. Same for Kipchoge (34) and Mo Farah (36) in the men.

Emily Sisson training on track
Emily Sisson training. Photo: courtesy New Balance

Sisson at 27 fits a more familiar pattern, the 5 and 10,000m runner at mid-career peak ready to make the step up to the marathon. Think (if your memory goes back) of Steve Jones or (more recently) Shalane Flanagan. With world-class PRs in the first three months of this year at half-marathon and 10,000m, Sisson is “sharp,” as Arthur Lydiard use to call it. She looked razor-sharp at Stanford. Hers is one of the most enthralling track-to-marathon debuts for many a year.

Quotes from Thursday’s press conference in London:

Vivian Cheruiyot (defending champion):

“I’m running my own race. My aim is to win the race and to run my personal best. My shape is better than last year and if the weather is good I know I’m going to run my personal best. I’ll be happy if I do maybe 2:17, that’s what I’m aiming for.

“If it’s going to be 68 [minutes] at half way that is okay for me. Last year 67 was too fast. Running a PB half-marathon in Lisbon [1:06:34] really gives me confidence because mostly I did it alone. We have people pacing us here so my chances of running 2:17 are very high.”

Mary Keitany (three-times London winner):

“I am focused and ready. I ran very fast in the second half in New York. On Sunday I’ll aim to reach halfway in 68:30 and I’m ready for that pace. We’re all here to win. For me, that’s the goal this year – it doesn’t matter about the time.

“It was not nice to lose like that [last year] but in the marathon, you have to learn from your mistakes. I’m 37 but I’m not stopping soon. I want to go to the Olympics next year.”

Gladys Cherono (fastest 2018 time, winning Berlin in 2:18:11):

“I was not ready to run the London Marathon last year, but this year I feel strong and I am hoping to do much better. I need to run my own race, to simply think about myself. I have trained very well and this has given me confidence I didn’t have last year.”

Bridgit Koskei (Chicago winner 2018):

“I was second last year and feel ready to win the title and to improve my personal best. My half marathon times this year are a good indication that I am in great shape for Sunday. I know how my training went before I won in Chicago and I am even better prepared for London. But I won’t think about winning until the pacemakers drop out. I would love to beat Mary and Vivian but I will just run to break my personal best and then see what happens.”